The killing of a cop

Few events have shocked Northern Nevada as much as the 1979 murder of an undercover officer

Undercover officer James Hoff was murdered on June 25, 1979.

Undercover officer James Hoff was murdered on June 25, 1979.

This story was produced in collaboration with the news website

Reno, Nevada in the 1970s was much smaller than it is today. The city’s 1970 population of about 72,000 pales to today’s count of more than 245,000 citizens. But Reno then, as now, was also a draw for low-skilled, blue collar labor.

Just about anyone could move to Reno and find work that paid enough to get by—as a dishwasher, a dealer or a cab driver. It was this lure for fast, easy money that drew one young man to Reno in 1979.

Just out of high school, but without a diploma, John Steven Olausen struggled to learn. He had a learning disability, dyslexia, that hampered his ability to understand the basics.

A February 1974 report by the Chico, California school district noted Olausen’s erratic learning behavior while in middle school: “It appears that he has some feelings of inadequacy concerning his inability to compete academically with his peers, and he is reaching out for help,” wrote school psychology test administrator David Pitt. “In his social reactions, Steve expects immediate gratification of his desires. He appears withdrawn and is turned inward when he encounters stress. However, he is now reaching out for help.”

Olausen, at 18, was caught between his parents during an ugly divorce. He was easily influenced but not a troublemaker. Friends said he would do anything for anyone at any time.

These traits helped land him on death row within a year of coming to Reno. Olausen was one of four involved with the killing of undercover Reno Police Officer James Hoff. His family is still trying to reckon with how he took part in a heinous murder.

Today, Olausen is holed up in the Nevada prison system. He’s serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole and has been in prison for all of his adult life. He’s been calling me from prison on and off for the past year. Olausen, his family and his advocate, Debbie Sinclair, have been trying to tell Olausen’s part of the story in the Hoff killing for decades.

It’s a story, they say, that has been incomplete in mainstream news coverage since the day everything went down: June 25, 1979.

Competing narratives

Few events have shocked this community as much as the murder of the 33-year-old undercover officer in 1979 near Idlewild Park. Hoff’s legacy as a fallen officer still resonates with the Reno Police Department.

Olausen, Edward Tom Wilson, Fred Stites and David Lani were each convicted of killing Hoff. How they became murderers remains in dispute.

Andy Boles, a retired lieutenant for the Reno Police Department, wrote a book, Piercing the Lion Heart, about Hoff’s death. The book illustrates at least two versions of how Hoff died. In the official version, Hoff was an undercover cop on major drug bust. Law enforcement and the district attorneys to this day want his killers to remain in prison.

Boles’ book also tells the story of the four perpetrators who were found guilty of killing Hoff. They insist they were set up, acted in self-defense, and that their sentences were overly harsh.

“I think those boys got a raw deal,” said Boles, who, as an officer transplanted from California to Reno, helped search for the young men the day Hoff was killed.

Neither version of events is completely clean. Boles says some of the key evidence is missing from the case. RPD’s role, he explains, has never received scrutiny.

The deal

Wilson and Olausen, who had just turned 18, got jobs soon after arriving in Reno. After working in maintenance for three weeks at the then Reef Hotel, both were fired. They were doing a lot of partying at the time, drinking and smoking marijuana. Because they were getting a free room as part of the job, they effectively became homeless upon being laid off.

“We were taken advantage of,” Olausen told police. “The work that [the Reef’s manager] wanted to have done was done, and that was all he wanted out of us. He didn’t pay Tom, so we went to the Labor Board.”

Wilson was regarded as the ringleader of the four, but prosecutors would later say that Olausen’s constant presence alongside Wilson meant that he was a major co-conspirator.

Upon getting canned from the Reef, they both headed farther west on Fourth Street and crashed with Lani, then 16, and Stites, 18, at the El Tavern Motel, a weekly that stands to this day. Their stay with the pair was for only a few days while Wilson began working on a drug scheme to get money.

Instrumental in that scheme was a Reno police informant, Lynn Stefansky. She had been arrested by RPD on an extradition warrant from California for possession of stolen property and drug possession. Also a former prostitute, she became close with officers and helped them with drug cases. Stefansky, then 23, viewed Wilson and Olausen as younger siblings.

“I have a brother their age, and I sort of took them under my wing,” she said. “I thought of them as kids.”

Also living at the Reef, Stefansky put Wilson in touch with Hoff, whom she said was a freelance photographer and a drug dealer. While then-District Attorney Cal Dunlap would later assert, based upon testimony from jailhouse informants, that the crew knew Hoff was an undercover cop, they deny it to this day. Statements given at the time show they suspected it was a possibility, but their agreed-upon intent was to rob a drug dealer.

“None of those boys knew they were killing a cop,” Boles said. “If anyone suggests otherwise, they need to do more research than I have done. But they did kill a cop, and there’s still a lot of bad blood out there.”

The exchange between Hoff and Wilson was to be 10 ounces of heroin for $16,000. Hoff’s stepbrother, Dennis George, said this was the largest deal of its kind in the history of RPD. That amount in 1979 is about $56,000 today.

Through Stefansky, Wilson and Hoff agreed to meet. Their second meeting, at about 1 a.m. on Monday, June 25, 1979, was to be the exchange.

The setup

The setup, in hindsight, was rife with 1970s clichés. Nixon’s war on drugs was in full effect, and, culturally, the emergence of personalities like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in popular culture had many, including Lani and Stites, fascinated with martial arts. They wore their hair long and shaggy.

A piece of evidence used against them was nunchucks found in Hoff’s car, presumably brought by the four young men to the scene. In reality, they were wooden dowels connected with a hardware store chain and covered in electrical tape.

On RPD’s side, the $16,000 cash was not so creatively stashed in what appeared to be a home-embroidered bag with a pot leaf and the word “STASH” in all capital letters.

The “drugs” on the buy was a bag full of baking powder. The naive and troubled men had fabricated their part of the deal and wrongly assumed they might get away with it. The four were going to rob Hoff and travel and party with the $16,000.

Lani would later testify that he believed Hoff was a dope dealer, but not just any dope dealer: He dealt heroin to children.

“Tom [Wilson] said that Jim [Hoff] was into murder and was a pusher, and he pushed heroin to anything that would buy it … no matter what age,” Olausen told police.

If there was any trouble, they were armed. Lani and Stites each had large knives from Stites’ job as a casino cook at the Eldorado Hotel Casino. Olausen had a buck knife in his back pocket.

At the appointed time, Wilson and Hoff were driving around Reno, allegedly to shake off any possible police that may have been following them. The other three laid in wait near the river expecting the deal to go down about midnight.

Then they left.

“We happened to see some car—a car earlier in that area, and it shut off its lights and sat there for a long time,” Lani testified. “It turned on its lights and took off. So we decided not to do it. We really didn’t think we were going to do it in the first place.”

They went back to their room at the El Tavern.

But when Wilson discovered them back at the room, he ordered them back across the river to the appointed location. The three went back into hiding at the river off Idlewild Drive.

Wilson and Hoff eventually drove down a dirt road, off Idlewild Drive, toward the Truckee River and then walked on a path toward an old pump house. Lani, Stites and Olausen were hiding under a plank by the pumphouse. Wilson and Hoff walked right by them.

Then all hell broke loose. Hoff ended up being stabbed to death, but how it all happened remains disputed. The four who participated said they had been smoking pot and drinking prior to the incident. Their statements to police and in court contradicted one another.

Court documents and police statements show what might have happened.

Wilson said Hoff confronted him, never identified himself as a police officer, and a fight ensued. Hoff’s stepbrother George says Hoff did identify himself as an officer and that Wilson had told Hoff he had a gun.

Here’s what Wilson said at the time: “I told Hoff that I didn’t want him to bring any guns when he had two of them. When I was fighting him for over a minute, before he almost cut my throat, he could of told us he was a cop but didn’t.”

Hoff and Wilson battled for up to a minute. Lani pounced and stabbed Hoff after Wilson called for help from the other three who were hiding under the plank.

“I’m going to fucking kill you,” someone, presumably Hoff, yelled.

Shocked at what he had done, Lani would later testify, he ran from the scene. At that point, Stites joined the fracas at Wilson’s command and stabbed Hoff while Wilson was holding him. Stites also quickly left, and then Olausen said he emerged with the buck knife.

He said he did not see Stites or Lani stabbing Hoff, but when he arrived Hoff was bloody and pleading for help. Olausen approached with his buck knife.

Hoff, still alive, grabbed Olausen and knocked the knife out of his hand. Stites would later say Olausen also participated in the stabbing. Olausen denies it and says he was ordered by Wilson to cut Hoff’s throat. He did not.

Here’s what Olausen told police at the time: “I guess he realized he was dying, and Tom said ‘stop,’ you know, the damage’s done. I couldn’t handle seeing him, you know, seeing him in any more pain, and I knew that his wounds were violent. I mean he was going to die, and so I told him to lay there, so they wouldn’t come back and hurt him.”

Edward Tom Wilson is one of four men who were convicted in the killing of police officer James Hoff.

Hoff stopped breathing.

Wilson and Olausen then put him in the vehicle Hoff was driving. They went back to the El Tavern, got Lani, took a sheet from a mattress to cover Hoff’s body, then they proceeded to Verdi, onto Dog Valley road, and buried Hoff’s body in a ditch along the road in California.

Police were tailing Hoff most of the night and sporadically lost contact with him. An audio device that was meant to document the deal repeatedly failed. Officers lost visual and audio contact with Hoff during key points of the night.

“You never let money walk, and you never lose contact with your undercover guy,” Boles explained. “You always keep him in sight and within earshot. Jimmy was a tough guy and did whatever he could to survive, but he had no cover. When it all came to the showdown, he had no cover, and that’s just inexcusable.”

Retired Sparks policeman Frank Torres, a close friend and colleague of Hoff’s, agrees.

“It was totally out of the realm of how they should’ve conducted that case,” Torres said. “That case should’ve never went the distance it did. The supervisor that night never should’ve let him do what he did. There was no lighting; there wasn’t shit.”

Hoff’s body was found by police within a day.

Lani and Stites hightailed it to Las Vegas and spent their newly acquired cash partying. They then went to Oklahoma and were arrested while deboarding their bus from Vegas.

Olausen and Wilson were also quickly arrested. They soon found out they had taken part in killing a police officer.

The charges

A chief complaint about the case by the defendants—being sentenced for kidnapping Hoff. The prosecution implied that Hoff was stabbed again in the car after the deadly fight near the Truckee River.

The proof? The motel bedsheet in which Hoff’s body was wrapped. Dunlap went to pains to explain to three judges that Hoff was stabbed again after he was loaded in the car. Slash marks in the sheet, he said, lined up with wounds. The medical examiner also suggested that’s what happened, and that Hoff could have been alive for up to 20 minutes after the fatal fight at the river.

Not true, the young men said. Dunlap, however, raised the question during their sentencing hearing. A mattress in their room had stab holes in it.

“Wasn’t that a dress rehearsal where you would get the feel of stabbing someone?” Dunlap asked Lani.

“No, sir,” Lani replied. He and Stites said they were “playing martial arts games.”

Wilson concurred.

“There was a mattress … that had holes in it from those knife punctures they put in it screwing around, and the sheet that was found around Hoff where he was buried was the sheet that was on the bed or mattress that was punctured with the same holes and the mattress holes [were] exact,” Wilson wrote. “They say the stab wounds fit with the sheet’s, which is a big lie.”

Olausen was also questioned by police about the mattress and sheet.

“There’s three holes in that sheet, knife holes, corresponding wounds underneath it,” RPD detectives told Olausen. “When did those happen? And who did those?”

Olausen said he didn’t know. The detectives accused him of lying.

“How did those holes get in that sheet?” they repeated.

“I don’t know,” Olausen answered. “I swear, I don’t know.”

Olausen repeatedly said he never stabbed Hoff, but his buck knife was later found with what was considered to be a small amount of blood on it, causing the detectives to assert the buck knife was used to stab Hoff in the car. The two butcher knives were retrieved near the scene.

“Maybe I can clear this up,” Olausen explained to detectives. “If you go back to the El Tavern, there’s a bed and it has stab holes in it. That’s the sheet we took.”

The mattress was never used as evidence and is not part of the case’s record at the Washoe County courthouse. The sheet is still in custody along with Hoff’s clothes and the knives.

A legal slog

Nevada law states that those who assist with crimes such as murder are just as guilty as those who actually commit the acts of the crime. All four of Hoff’s killers are alive and in prison because they pleaded guilty to Hoff’s death.

Olausen, upon arrest, cooperated with police and offered to take them to where Hoff was buried. He gave statements without the presence of an attorney. Then public defender Fred Atcheson tried to intervene but was escorted out of the Reno jail by sheriff’s deputies. He would later pen an article decrying his treatment at the hands of law enforcement.

“I was ordered out of the Reno City Jail by jail personnel at the direction of Mills Lane,” Atcheson said. “This rude ejection came during my initial interview with Olausen, a young man charged with murder.” After a judge’s order, Atcheson was allowed back into jail trying to represent Olausen.

“Several hours of turmoil expended,” he recalled. “I returned to the jail and discovered that the young man had given a statement upon the promise of a county lawyer and police that the state would not seek the death penalty if he cooperated.”

Months later, Olausen and Wilson were sentenced to death. Lani and Stites got life without the possibility of parole.

Wilson, who remains on death row, said from the beginning his legal representation was lousy.

“If I have to get some rotten lawyer that at least is telling me the truth, I’ll take him even if it costs me my life,” he complained to his father in a letter after he was arrested. He has appealed his conviction, unsuccessfully.

Olausen and his family also said their representation, by then attorney Steve Forman, was inadequate.

Dunlap, during their sentencing hearing, acknowledged that Olausen had cooperated, and he reminded the court that they had no legal obligation to give Olausen a death sentence. He requested death for Stites, Wilson and Lani.

“I ask that those verdicts be death for David Lani, death for Fred Stites, and most of all, for the Brutus, the Rasputin, death for Tom Wilson,” Dunlap asked the three-judge sentencing panel.

The judges mostly agreed.

A legal slog surrounding the case continues through today. Olausen successfully appealed his death conviction in 1989.

The Nevada Supreme Court ultimately agreed his representation was poor because Forman did not present “a large body of mitigating evidence, coupled with [Forman’s] egregious remarks before the sentencing panel,” according to the judges.

Forman championed the district attorney’s position when he said: “I certainly hope the court hasn’t been offended by possibly my curt attitude with regard to Mr. Olausen, but I think this court has a duty to law enforcement, has a duty to the prosecution to weigh this case from a legal standpoint.” Forman continued his sterling advocacy with the thought that: “I’m sure friends of Officer Hoff—I’m sure if it was my friend, I would want them dead.”

Olausen continues to appeal kidnapping and robbery charges, for which he’s still serving a life sentence. He’s twice been denied parole by the Nevada Pardons Board. The Washoe County DA’s office continues to fend off his legal filings.

Of the four, Lani, who delivered the first knife blow to Hoff, may see life outside prison. Because of his age at the time, 16, he is eligible for parole, but he escaped prison after his original sentencing and has to serve additional time.

A legacy

The killing of Officer Hoff permanently changed the Reno Police Department, which had to improve policies for undercover work so officers would be protected in the future. Hoff’s name is enshrined on a permanent memorial in Idlewild Park. Each May, law enforcement from around the state pay tribute there to fallen officers.

There’s a scholarship named after Hoff at the University of Nevada, Reno, and his sacrifice is forever embedded into the legacy of the police department. Reno Police Chief Jason Soto cited his name in tribute upon becoming chief earlier this year.

Hoff’s killers claim there is more to how he died. Andy Boles, the retired police lieutenant, set out to tell more of the story in his book.

“This is a popular story about a cop being killed, and nobody’s wanted to hear the rest of the story,” he warned me. “Everything went wrong. I’m not saying they are good guys, and I’m not saying they were wrongfully convicted, but they were entitled to a much more serious and deeper process than what they got.”

Hoff’s family members, however, are still waiting for justice. They attend the annual peace officers memorial in May.

“The value is the entire community acknowledging and expressing appreciation for the people who put their lives on the line for us every day,” said Hoff’s stepbrother George. “The foundation formed to honor all peace officers.”

The ultimate raw deal, he maintains, was his family losing a highly regarded brother and a son in the line of duty.

“It was extremely hard on Jimmy’s mother,” George said. “She was very upset that the death penalty hadn’t been completed before she died. It’s been very difficult to accept.”

George says he raises their concerns about the legal system with elected officials whenever he can. “How can this be?” he said. “How can any law-abiding entity allow this to continue? It’s just nonsensical.”